Thursday, August 30, 2007

Our Family's Dirty Little Secret

Everyone, it seems, leads a double life. Eventually, it'll all come out, so why even try hiding it? Better keep your blinds closed and clear out those temporary internet files on a regular basis. And even then, you probably won't get away with nuthin'. And it just doesn't happen to Republican politicians, either (c'mon Larry Craig--what was really with that toe-tapping int he men's room stall?) Sooner or later, some advesary--or, worse, some member of the press-will come across your little secret, bring it out into the open, it'll all be over. And we say with a sigh, that day has happened to us.

Heading into turn 1 at 120mph. . . feel the tug of the g-forces. . .
Sharp-eyed readers may well have noticed the photograph of yours truly taking a snapshot of sons E and I in Wednesday's Fort Worth Star-Telegram. I really wasn't forced to give our names to the photographer, but I figured we were caught in the act, guilty, and we could no longer keep our secret from our friends. So, unlike Larry Craig, we might as well be up front with it.

We're NASCAR fans.

There, we said it.

I guess that's kind of a bold admission, since M. is from Mexico and I'm a carpet-bagger Yankee from north of the Red River. Folks like us aren't supposed to spend down time reading or pondering just what the hell is wrong with Junior's poor performance this year. That's supposed to occupy the minds of. . .well, folks who drink RC Cola and eat Moon Pies (then again, a French-Canadian will be racing trucks this fall and rocker/lesbian Melissa Etheridge just sang the national anthem to open the California race, so I guess the demographics are changing).
I only have a couple friends who have more than a passing interest in stock car racing. Oh, there are a few of them who like Formula One and Indy Car. . .that's somehow racing on a higher level. . . a better class of fan. . . folks who like a little brie with their carbon monoxide.

With our admission of this, perhaps they'll feel free now to join us. Cummon, say it. You know you want to: Rubbin' is Racin'. Second is the First Loser. Jeff Gordon is Gay.

I'm going to blame our transformation into true NASCAR mom and dad on the day we stopped by our nearby Home Depot with then-four-year-old E. in tow. On display in the parking lot was the bright orange Number 20 Chevrolet Monte Carlo Sponsored by Home Depot. E. went bonkers, and of course we stopped to check it out. From then on, we've been Tony Stewart fans, for better or worse. We started watching casually, a race here and there on television. Eventually, this became an every Sunday-afternoon thing. Our attendance at church suffered, as we were worshipping at the Temple of Bill France Junior. (That's always been a puzzle to me: how can a sport stereotyped to be the favorites of God-Fearing southern Baptists run their races on Sundays? Don't give me that "on the seventh day, God created TiVo" business, either!). The prayer before the race? Just covering their asses, spiritually-speaking.

Holding onto dear life in the corners, with a huge smile on his face: E at TMS. . .

Of course, with mom and dad and older brother watching, it was inevitable that the young 'un (as an honorary NASCAR Southerner I can now type with a southern accent) I. became a fan as well. He's become a Dale Junior fan, admiring anything with a number "8" attached to it or painted red. His second-favorite driver? Jeff Gordon in the Number 24 Chevrolet Monte Carlo Sponsored by Dupont and Nicoret. Go figure. Hopefully, this won't screw him up too much as he grows older, though he's in for a rude awakening next year when Earnhardt Jr. changes teams, numbers, and likely car color. Silly Season is so traumatic on the young ones. . .

I was hoping this obsession with NASCAR racing by the boys was just because they tend to love anything with wheels or wings on it. But it has gone far worse than that. I made the poor parenting decision to purchase a Play Station and EA sport's NASCAR '06 game. . . and nearly lost a son in the process. E. goes through periodic spells when he wants nothing more out of life than to "race" on the track at New Hampshire, barking driving commands in a high-pitched pseudo-sportscaster/crew-chief voice as his sits immersed in front of the television set, tongue curled over his upper lip, stomping his feet rapidly and contorting his body as he heads into the corners. I will give him credit: he's past the stage when it is enough to create a huge pileup and now actually attempts to improve his score with each race.

No place in the house is safe to walk anymore--the kids have gradually acquired dozens of small die-cast stock cars, which periodically align themselves in racing formation near the front door. And the goal of every NASCAR sponsor--to have their product instantly recognized--is rewarded each time we go for a drive as the kids call out the names of automobiles, stores, and products that are emblazoned on the hoods of their favorite cars (thankfully, Viagra no longer sponsors the Number 6 Ford, as I don't think I'm ready to explain what an erectile dysfunction tablet is to a six year old).

It isn't all their fault. Mom and Dad have dragged the kids to an autograph session or two, taken them by Texas Motor Speedway to check out the array of haulers on race weekend, and practice that particular brand loyalty/brainwashing that finds us shunning Lowe's Home Improvement stores because of their sponsorship of the robotic sponsor-name spewing Jimmy Johnson and his Number 48 Chevrolet Monte Carlo. We take our business to Home Depot, sponsor of the affable, scruffy, tubby, goofy smart-ass Tony Stewart. And Dad spent one afternoon painting E.'s bedroom walls orange with a giant "20" and a checkered-flag border.

Tuesday, then, we headed back to Texas Motor Speedway for FanFest! which was mostly a way for motor home and cell phone dealers to get you interested in their product. Once you got past the cross-promotion aspect of the event, the best thing were the rides in "pace cars" around the track. Very cool. You don't realize how steep the banking is on these tracks til you're stopped at the top of one looking down. Nor how smooth the racing surface is. Nor, even at the sedate speed of 120 miles per hour, how much centrifugal force wants to throw you off the track in curves. Wisely, TMS required all riders to legally release them of all responsibility should a tire blow and the car smack into the wall. Kasey Kahne would hardly feel it in his car, but the cars we rode in were largely right off the street and equipped only with lap and shoulder harness. (Irony #1 of stock car racing: None of the cars are even close to being "stock"--i.e., right off the street--any more).

Perhaps after this little taste of speed up close, we're ready to buy tickets to a Nextel race. We'd been to a Craftsman Truck series race (basically less-powerful cars clad in pick-up truck bodies driven by less-experienced drivers more prone to spectacular accidents), but the big show, of course, is Nextel Cup, along with its highly-marketed drivers. And, racing aside, the personalities of the sport are a big part of our interest in it, which is ironic (Irony #2) given that compared to stick-and-ball sports, stock car drivers are largely unseen entities strapped in their cars until after the race is done, when they magically reappear, thank their sponsors profusely, and climb into their private jets headed for the next race. But, NASCAR drivers consistently rate higher in recognition than athletes in the other major sports.

But every driver, it seems plays their role in the sport. . .not unlike Pro Wrestling. There's the impatient young punk everyone loves to hate (Kyle Busch), the pretty-boy Yankee who inspires virulent hatred among the "old school" Southerners (Jeff Gordon), the scrappy team owner who drives his own car and is always battling the NASCAR heirarchy (Robbie Gordon), the good ol'boy whom no one can understand when he speaks (Sterling Marlin), the young heartthrob (Kasey Kahne) and the son of the martyed God of Stock Car Racing who has shown so much promise but has yet to get the job done (Dale Earnhardt Jr.).

It's the cars, it's the drivers, it's the tracks, no two of them the same, and each with a personality of their own. So, we'll go into the final 12 races of the season cheering for Tony Stewart to keep climbing those fences after winning races. We'll collectively hiss when the "evil" Hendrick drivers Gordon, Johnson, Busch and whats-his-name challenge for the lead. We'll all wonder if Michael Waltrip is going to qualify for a race this week, and hope, for sentimental reasons, that "little E" will win one more race in the Red Number 8 Chevorlet Monte Carlo Sponsored By Budweiser one last time before the season comes to an end.

Let's go racin', boys!

E. screams "Awesome!" after the pace car ride. M. seems to agree.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

A Baseball Pounding Like None Other. . .

Though not the worst team in the American League (we can thank Tampa Bay for holding that spot of honor!), the Texas Rangers have been stinking it up pretty bad this year. Only 18 games back on division-leading LA, and 7 games behind third-place Oakland, Ranger fans were tossed a little crumb Wednesday night when the team set an American league record for most runs scored in a double-header (39) and most runs scored in a single game in 110 year in destroying the equally-hapless Baltimore Orioles 30-3 and 9-7. The 30 RBI's produced also set a record. Some of the numbers put up by Ranger batters bordered on the ridiculous.

We listened to the ten-run eighth inning on the way to a Fort Worth Cats game, and it was pretty amazing. The hits never stopped. . .

“This is something freaky. You won’t see anything like this again for a long, long time. I am glad I was on this end of it,” said Marlon Byrd, who hit one of two Texas grand slams. Congrats to Travis Metcalf, who hit the other Salami on the day he was called up from AAA Oklahoma.

Well, better late than never, I guess. Too bad the team couldn't have spread out those 39 runs to the many games where the bats were silent.
Go here for box score from game one. . . here for game two.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Colorado Railroads: Fun for the whole family!

I. and E. catching the Narrow Gauge Fever at Chama. . .

A good chunk of our time in Colorado last month was spent trackside. I guess that might be expected, given my love of railroads, which initially manifested itself in model railroading, then photography and writing (which served as my entre' into my first career of journalism), and eventually into my current employment as a train dispatcher.

Come to think of it, my railroad addiction is responsible for my family, for it was a railfan buddy whose girlfriend introduced me to M., and the rest was history.

So when M. and I escaped to the mountains of Colorado, dragging E. and I. along, it wasn't too hard to convince them to frame part of the trip in a railroad context.

To me, Colorado has always been about the railroads. I lived in the Denver area when I was a little kid, with a busy railroad not too far from home. Back in those days, folks really DID travel by rail, and they had a choice of which railroad would carry them (my mom's parents preferred the City of Denver over the Union Pacific; my dad's parents always rode the Denver Zephyr on the Burlington Route). Family picnics were as likely as not to end up near the Rio Grande on the approach to Moffat Tunnel, and no dining experience for a six-year-old was cooler than Denver Drumstick, where HO scale trains circled the dining room.

So could I be excused for forcing the family to spend maybe too much time this vacation riding trains? I think so! These weren't just any trains, either. No two were alike in terms of their history, their operations, probably even their gauge. And they showcased the remarkable diversity found in Colorado for those who like to ride. . .

Class operation: Royal Gorge at Canon City. . .

Winding along the Arkansas River. . .

. . .and stopping at the famous "Hanging Bridge."

The Royal Gorge Route: Regular passenger service ended on the old Rio Grande line between Pueblo and Grand Junction in 1967; the line closed as a through freight route in 1997, but was resurrected as a short-line hauling rock from a quarry and this nifty tourist train operating between Canon City and Parkdale. Tracks cling to a narrow ledge along the Arkansas River as it slices through Royal Gorge, in places only a few dozen feet wide and well over a thousand feet deep. The river through here is a popular rafting location. The train itself is a class operation, offering several levels of service, from lowly (but comfortable) coach class to de luxe lunch and dinner under a dome car. I'm a cheapskate, but since we came to see the scenery and not a plate of food, we went coach, which still provides one access to the open air cars, the only way to view this wonder of nature. The train is pulled by former Chicago & Northwestern F7's painted in Rio Grande's "single stripe" paint scheme, as is the train for ex-Canadian National coaches and a mix of former Santa Fe and Milwaukee Road "Super Domes" still wearing the paint of former owner Holland America tours. The two hour ride in coach will set you back $30. The real foamer will opt to drop a C-note for a cab ride. Bonus: Staying in Canon City, a picturesque little town with great Mexican food (El Caporal, 1028 Main Street).

My favorite steam railroad? You betcha. Downgrade near Lobato. . .

Enjoying the view climbing Cumbres Pass from the open-air gondola. . .

E. plots our path on a map. . .

Cumbres & Toltec Scenic: One of two former Rio Grande slim gauge tourist railroads, the C&TS bills itself as "the nation's longest and highest narrow gauge railroad." Jointly owned by New Mexico and Colorado, it was purchased from the Rio Grande in 1970 when it discontinued through freight operations between Alamosa and Durango; the 60-some mile stretch from Antonito to Chama was preserved, and is operated as the museum it is. Perhaps no place in America can one go back and get a better glimpse of what it was like "in the days." Among railfans, the C&TS is deemed grittier and more "authentic" than the "other," more popular Rio Grande narrow gauge, the Durango & Silverton Railroad, linking the two towns along the Las Animas River. The D&S is more polished, more "touristy" and doesn't allow the railfans to run free all over the property. It is also privately owned and reportedly makes a ton of money. Not so the C&TS--the two states select an operator to run the operation, but much of the historic restoration and rebuilding of the expansive property is done by volunteers. I'd not ridden the D&S since 1976; I've now ridden the C&TS three times (twice on chartered "photo freights"), and never come away disappointed. The chance to walk through the freight yards and roundhouse area in Chama with your kids and see a real steam railroad at work, as well as ride up a steep mountain grade to Cumbres Pass is unforgettable. Don't worry about the cinders in your hair. . .it's all part of the experience. Coach tickets range from $62-$76, depending upon length of the trip. (D&S charges from $65-79 for coach and a slew of "premium class"options). Stay at: Chama Trails Inn (reasonable and rustic).

Above timberline. . . and it's a looooong way down on the M&PP. . .

Top of the World, Ma! M&PP at the summit. Take a deep breath. . .

A "no shit!" moment: End of Track. You don't want to screw up here. . .

Manitou & Pikes Peak Cog Railway: Most railroads are limited to the steepness of hills they can climb by adhesion--rails get to steep, and the drivers start to spin. Not so a cog railway (also known as a "rack railroad")--the locomotives have gears which engage a rack between the rails in order to battle gravity. Such railroads are common, for example, in Europe, but there are only a few in the United States--the M&PP is the highest railway in the US, and the highest rack railroad in the world, climbing to the top of the 14,110' mountain. The railroad was constructed in 1889 after Zalmon Simmons, whose company today is famous for its Beau-T-Rest mattresses, endured a rather tiresome mule ride to the top of Pikes Peak, and exclaimed (so legend has it) "There Has to be a Better Way!" And so he built the 8.9 mile railway strictly for tourists. The railroad's steepest grades reach 25% (you climb 25 feet in elevation for every 100 feet traveled; a "steep" adhesion railroad is only 2%); stout Swiss-built diesel-hydraulics get you to the summit admirably, if not entirely in luxury. The train is sold-out in summer time; on a hot July day, one can lose 30 degrees of temperature between the base at Manitou Springs and the summit. And don't expect to go running around like a wild man up top--at 14,000', there's not a lot of oxygen, and folks passing out or getting dizzy or nauseous are pretty common (I got woozy just standing up, which makes me wonder how the guy I saw smoking up top was able to accomplish such a feat!). A trip to the top may make your kids sleepy--both I and E were zonked out at one point on this trip. At times, the ride up feels more like being in a bus than a train. The engineering to climb a mountain in this manner is truly audacious, and my mind couldn't help but wonder what would happen is a train happened to get away and go flying down the mountain (it hasn't happened . . . yet!). Truly an amazing ride, and a great way to beat the heat! Reservations: Highly suggested.
I. and E. check out the small-gauge steam on the Tiny Town Railroad. . .

Tiny Town Railroad: Hey, you're a tourist attraction, so you better have a claim to fame or a catchy slogan. Here's Tiny Town's: The Oldest Kid-Sized Village and Railroad in the USA. That about sums it up. Tiny Town is and old-school tourist-attraction. Nothing high-tech here. . .just a collection of scaled-down buildings and an amusement park train--something right out of the 1950s! It probably hasn't changed much since then, except it would seem that sponsorship of some of the tiny buildings by area businesses is likely a fairly recent revenue-enhancement effort. . . Tiny Town has been an institution in the Denver area since 1915. Tucked away a few miles up Highway 285 southwest of Denver, this collection of one-sixth buildings has endured floods, hard-economic times, and picketing from upset "little people" (ok, I made that last one up). Its website calls itself one of Denver's "oldest, most cherished landmarks." But what about the train? The railroad has a full roundhouse and turntable, for pete's sake (the last operating Roundhouse in Colorado???), a couple of steam engines, and my favorite, the Rio Grande F-units, resplendent in four-stripe paint and "Grande Gold." And the price is right: admission to Tiny Town is $5, the train, only $1 for the nine-minute ride. You can't beat that! Fun for the whole family without spending $200 and having your kids lose interest after the first hour. Might be good: To drop some acid before visiting this place. Everything is so tiny, man!. . . .

I couldn't resist going for the low-angle, heavy-tele-smash S-curve shot. Boy, that Engineer looks TOO happy. . .

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Smacked by Cruel Mother Nature

Shattered trees and the grain elevator: about all that's left in Greensburg. . .

Westward from Hutchinson, Kansas, the small towns astride the old Rock Island railroad line appear in the distance, one by one: first, as tall white concrete grain elevator, then, a couple of miles out, as green oasis of shade trees spread out as relief of the endless wheatfields--Arlington, Preston, Pratt, Haviland. . . .a sucession of towns all pretty the same: sturdy frame houses laid out on a north-south grid of streets, the railroad dividing the town, a small business district, and large, stately hardwood trees. Maybe an hour west of Hutchinson, one approaches Greensburg--it's hard not to anticipate the place, the yellow and black advertising the town's "World's Largest Hand-Dug Well And Pallasite Meteorite" thick along US54. But as you approach where the map says Greensburg should be, something isn't right. The white grain elevator grows in the distance, all right, but the usual greenery of trees seems to be missing. Then you realize, as you enter the town's outskirts,the maginitude of the F-5 tornado of May 4, 2007 that leveled nearly 95% of the town.

These folks are staying. . .

There isn't much left in Greensburg. The stately old trees are snapped and denuded of branches. Once-quiet rural streets are virtually abandoned, the foundations of homes and scattered bricks about all that is left. A self-service gas station is back in business at the town's only four-way intersection; just west of there, a series of tents serve as a makeshift hospital. South of town is a small village of trailer homes and travel trailers, the temporary homes of displaced residents and the tradesman intent on rebuilding this town of around 1500 on the Kansas prairie.

The Well, as it used to appear. . .

and as it is today. . .

Eventually, you find the location of the hand-dug well, a block west of the shattered business district. One of those yellow and black signs is propped up against a fence put around the entry to the well, and well-wishers (certainly no pun intended) have committed their thoughts in ink to the sign.

What's left of downtown. . .

What befell Greensburg is certainly sobering--the randomness of destruction, the cruelty of fate. The mile-wide tornado killed 10 in Greensburg, a number much lower than you'd expect because radio and television warnings and the town siren were sounded well in advance. This was the first F-5 rated tornado in the United States since the Moore store in 1999.

Monster storms are just part of life in the midwest. Like drought, heat, and winter ice storms, tornadoes are one part heroic legend that grew up of settlers in the midwest vs. nature. Apparently, this is a fact not taken lightly by its residents, given the large number of backyard storm sheters. The toughness and pioneer spirit to stick it out on a piece of the praire no matter what nature sends their way is still evident in Greensburg, which intends to rebuild. It'll be decades before the scars of May 4 soften, but I don't doubt the residents who elect to stick around will be successful in their efforts. I look forward to coming back some day and having a chance to climb down that large hand-dug well and marvel at the Pallasite Meteorite.

I encourage you to donate to the Greensburg Rebuilding Fund, care of Greensburg State Bank P. O. Box 787 Greensburg, Kansas 67054.

Tornados are part of Kansas Culture. . .

Saturday, August 11, 2007

What's on TV?

1. Mad Men The world as it was when I was born. Don't mind the smoke.
2. The Bronx Is Burning Steinbrenner was an asshole even back then!
3. Big Love Even better if you used to live in Utah. Sinister doings. . .
4. Entourage I'm far more like Turtle than Vinny.
5. The Deadliest Catch Ah, the glamour of the high seas!
6. The Office Uncomfortably funny.
7. Robot Chicken You tell me what it all means.
8. Costas Now Bryant Gumble-free! Always an interesting story or two.
9. The Ghosts of Flatbush: Documentary adaptation of Michael Shapiro's "The Last Good Season"
10. Cheaters This is best when some wronged spouse decides to whomp some ass.

1981 Trip, Day 10, 11, and 12: Lots o' Nebraska (if you like that sort of thing. . . )

Life is good in Wymore, Nebraska in June 1981:
U28B's 5452, 5457. . .

June 15: After the previous evening's meterological fireworks, Monday morning dawned overcast. Marc, not wanting to face a day in the flatlands looking at BN GE's, of all things, elected to spend the day doing God-knows-what in our motel room. I rolled out of bed and intercepted the 21645 Lincoln-Wymore local at Beatrice with an all-star branchline junk consist (U28B 5457/GP20s 2047/2047/GP7s 1562/1589, all former Burlington) and followed it into Wymore.
Apart from green diesels, it didn't seem like Wymore had changed much from the steam era, when it was a vital nexus of branchline operations in south-eastern Nebraska. This was very much a railroad town: the sermon from Sunday's service at the Presbyterian church was entitled "From Steamer to Zephyrs"--if a railroad-themed sermon won't bring in the sinners, then, by God, nothing will!

Lincoln-Wymore local pulls by switcher, Wymore depot. . .

A crew terminal, Wymore sat astride the Oxford-Rulo secondary mainline (a cutoff between Denver and Kansas City) at the junction of branches south to Concordia and north to the Lincoln-Denver mainline at Crete. Activity was centered at a wye where a depot and brick roundhouse was situated. Both were in poor shape, the depot seemingly held together by whitewash paint. (Everything here is completely gone today, the railroad abandoned and all structures torn down) Our train arrived around 1:30pm, pulling beside a switcher with GP9 1956 next to the depot.

Flat nose, big-ol' windshield: Classic U28B 5402, Wymore. . .

Wymore-St. Joe local prepars to depart Wymore. . .

At the roundhouse, close to heaven: Ex-Great Northern U25B 5402 awaited a crew with ex-Q U28B 5452, called at 2:30pm for the 21640 local to St. Joseph. The skies were clearing. Things were looking up! Shortly, the local departed, and I bagged my best shot of him near the UP crossing east of town. The rest of the chase might've gone better, if I'd known where I was going. I ended up on a farm road between Wymore and Table Rock. Reaching the tracks, I turned the car around to facilitate quick escape after the shot. . .and drove off the edge of the road, into a ditch. Thinking quickly, I flagged the local down for help; the train stopped, and conductor and brakeman helped push me back onto the road. Then we were off! The two GE's pretty much left me in the dust. I caught up with him several more times en route to St. Joseph, but the shots were pretty crappy. Still, I came all this way to see a U25B in action, and at least I accomplished that. I returned to the motel room to an icy reception from Marc. It truly was time to head for home.

Shortly before the "ditch incident:" local 21640 at UP crossing east of Wymore. . .

June 16: We retraced our steps to Lincoln, stumbling across Missouri Pacific's Crete Local southbound near Hickman behind clean GP15 1627 and a GP28-2. A few minutes later, we were surprised at a rural elevator crossing at a place called Roca by a southbound BN coal train with three Santa Fe C30-7''s (8110-8030/8114) on 110 OGEX hoppers. I was oblivious to the fact that the train carried "green" markers; this train was running as train #2-76, the second section of scheduled freight #76. The busy St. Joe subdivision between Lincoln and Table Rock was still dark railroad dispatched under timetable authority; CTC would come to the railroad later this year, but for now, dispatchers paraded as many as a dozen sections of "train 76" over this line daily.

Surprise #1: MoP's Crete Local at Hickman. . .

Surprise #2: Santa Fe GE's on "#2-76" at Roca. . .

We stopped at Hastings to photograph power for a grain train (U30B 5746, SD9 6228 and 2 SD40s); and Holdrege as SD9 6185 dumped ballast on the 6th subdivision branch to Sterling, Colorado. Nearing Holbrook, the scanner came to life: The Oberlin local was returning westbound to McCook. He finished his station work and departed into the setting sun, 26 cars behind U28B 5454/GP30 2246 and GP20 2045. I made several nice shots of the train passing rural elevators, wig-wag signals, and the parallel highway made for some fine pan shots as well.

On the high Plains: SD9 6185 dumps rock at Holdrege. . .

Elevator, GE's, Wig-Wag:WB Oberlin local, Indianola. . .

June 17: We overnighted in McCook; I headed out early and photographed the Oberlin local departing the yard on its eastbound trip, this time with 5476/5454/2246 for power. I grabbed a shot off the overpass and raced ahead to Red Cloud, then headed back to the motel to collect Marc. While still not a happy camper, we were finally leaving the BN, GE's and Nebraska behind, and pointed straight north to the Union Pacific at North Platte. If pool power couldn't boost his spirits, well, hell, nothing could. We poked around the giant UP yard there a couple of hours, widnessing several trains including an eastbound with a pair of ex-Frisco SD45's behind a UP C30-7. Then, we made time westbound along old US 30 into Wyoming.

I don't recall if the weather turned sour, we ran out of film, or we were just tired of traveling with each other and wanted to get the hell back to Seattle as quickly as possible, but after Hersey, Nebraska, the trip notes and photographs stop. Who knows when we got back, and I sure as hell don't remember what else we saw.

Still, it WAS a hell of a trip, and, true to the form of ETTS, virtually nothing we photographed in those two weeks remains how it was. We saw Rio Grande, Utah Railway Alcos, US Steel F-units and all sorts of strange and exotic BN beasts in the wilds of Nebraska. But the bottom line on a trip such as this: be sure you and your traveling companion have common goals and desires on what to see; if not, be a little flexible and try to find something of interest everywhere you might go.
Postscript: Twenty-six years later, I'm connected to these BN lines in Nebraska professionally, working as a train dispatcher controlling train movement across the Lincoln-Brush, Colorado mainline--home of that Oberlin Local. It's possible that a few of those train crews I photographed in 1981 I'm today working with on a regular basis. Who'd'a'thunk it?

Friday, August 10, 2007

A small milestone

I. in peaceful slumber. . .

Since he's been born, youngest son I. has been quite the momma's boy. Naturally, his first word was "mimi" (assume that's "momma"), and for the first three years of his life, that life revolved around mom. Though I tried to help out as much as I could, it was M. who did nearly all the feeding, bathing, playing, and nurturing of I. It wasn't that I didn't have time for him, rather I tended to spend more time with E. as he matured. E. and I are best buddies, but I've never had that kind of relationship with I. Which, at times, when he spurned my requests for hugs and kisses or even the chance to put him to sleep at night, tended to hurt. I know I shouldn't take things personal--after all, he's a toddler. . .he'll come around.

The past week, it seems he has. We went out to dinner the other evening, and I. got extremely sleeply in the middle of the meal. I asked him if he'd like me to hold him while he slept, and he nodded and climbed into my arms and fell fast asleep. In the past, he would've shaken his head and said "no, Mama!" Imagine my surprise last night when he asked me to change his pull-up, put him in his pajamas and put him to bed. "You sure you don't want mama to put you to sleep?" I asked. He said, "No, you daddy." Well, push me over.

I. has a peculiar little habit when he falls asleep of reaching up and holding onto M. ear lobe. Last night, as he drifted off to sleep in his little bed, he reached over and held onto mine.

I think we've reached a small milestone. Now I truly feel like his daddy.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Is space still "worth it"? (and can we even achieve it if it is?)

The first "earthrise," Apollo 8, December 1968

The other afternoon, my friend Matt and I were tooling southbound on I35 headed to Austin. We were again discussing the pitiful choices the two major parties are putting forth for president, and this led to a general griping about how this country can't do anything right anymore. The war, Katrina, the sad shape of our highways--what's with the United States? This was particually poignant to me as right about this time, the shuttle Endeavour was rumbling on a launch pad in Florida, about to return to space.

"The shuttle?" you ask. "Do we still launch those?" Yep we do, and while I will admit it is indeed a great technological achievement (especially since these things have been flying since 1982 or so, and are about a decade older than the oldest garbage truck likely to be found in your neighborhood) , I'll also admit I really haven't been keeping up with this nation's space program, apart from the occasional shuttle disaster, for the past twenty years or so.

I don't think I'm really alone in this regard. Space flight isn't what it used to be. What we have left is a withered space shuttle program winding down a 25 year run. The last shuttle flights are supposed to take place in 2010, then. . . . what? I know the president made some sort of "commitment" to putting a man on Mars in the future, with a first stop on the moon by 2018, but such a pronouncement seemed more like a desperate attempt by a president mired in an unpopular war than a rallying cry for this nation like the speech by John Kennedy at Rice University in Houston in 1961 where he stunned the nation by vowing to send men safely to the moon and back in less than 9 years time. Nine years? It only struck me recently, as a middle aged American who recalls the space race only as a pre-teenager, what a audacious achievement that was. Our country today can't even fix New Orleans, for God's sake, and here Kennedy challenged the country's imagination to an extent not seen since. The cost would turn out to be extraordinary--$128 billion in 2006 dollars (for context: according to, the Iraq war has already drained our country of around $460 billon dollars, give or take a billion) --and was a huge drain on the national economy at a time when we were also fighting a war in Vietnam. (The two endeavours effectively scuttled LBJ's proposed "New Society;" he couldn't extricate himself from Vietnam, and didn't have the guts to go against popular sentiment and kill the slain JFK's pet program). But you can't argue with the results. I've read somewhere that the costs of the program were returned several times over by new technologies developed as a result. And we have MOON ROCKS! And cool stuff in museums to look at!

I. and E. and a Mercury Redstone. . .
in Hutchinson, KS, of all places. . .

I've definately been thinking about space again since returning from vacation a couple of weeks ago, part of which was a great day spent in Hutchinson, Kansas touring the Kansas Cosmosphere. You don't think of Kansas as the logical place for one of the nation's finest museums about the space program, but I was dumbstruck at their collection and presentation. We got there around 1030am and when we left at 5pm, I felt I'd barely scratched the surface. While the Cosmosphere is rather light on coverage of the space program after Apollo, the coverage from the days of Nazi Germany's development of the V-1 and V-2 missiles through the moon landings is incredible. The Soviet space program is given deep coverage as well, with two capsules and numerous artifacts displayed as well. Cosmosphere features flown capsules from the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo projects--reportedly, even the Smithsonian can't top it. There's plenty to see, watch, and read: the Cosmosphere is all about context. And a ticket is cheap, as well. If you or your kids have any interest in manned spaceflight, this is the place to go.

The Apollo 13 capsule in Kansas--yes, THAT one.

Seeing all the artificats--relics of a fading earlier age, really--on display made me realize how far in the past all this stuff was. I can remember as a five year old Gemini launches on the black and white set while my mom folded laundry. The nerve-wracking return of Apollo 13 brought our entire school into the multi-purpose room to watch a dozen televisions wheeled into the room. We strained to find the tiny capsule and its orange and white parachutes against the vast sky in the poor images broadcast from the bobbing deck of a ship in a distant ocean.

Scott, Worden, Irwin, Apollo 15:
Heroes to an 11 year old. . .and the 47 year old of today

We didn't only worship sports heroes: schools loaded up their kids in buses to see the Apollo 15 astronauts speak (if you were lucky--I was--you got all their autographs). Boys my age pretended we were astronauts on the playground (we always wanted to be Armstrong; never Mike Collins), built Revell models of the spacecrafts, and even today recall exactly where they were when man first set foot upon the moon. And our minds went wild the first time we saw the small piece of moonrock that toured the nation with the Apollo 11 capsule in 1972: dusty grey with tiny shining bits of what looked like glass imbedded in it.
Unabashed nostalgia for those days make even Nixon and metallic green LTD's seem not so bad anymore. Today's world is still wracked with wars and poverty and a million other things to spend money on. Why even care about space these days? Personally, I don't think the international space station is worth the expense (its main reason to exist seems to be its continuing construction and expansion); apart from flights to repair in-orbit satellites, the launching of new satellites can be accomplished far more cheaply than sending them up on the space shuttle.

Space has seemingly slipped from our national consciousness, which made Bush's hail-Mary announcement in 2004 (amid dark days in the Iraq war) of the Orion program to return to the moon seemingly come from nowhere. The program will once-again cost a ton of money (estimated $210 billion thru 2025). Looking at the concept for the program, it almost looks like the old plans for Apollo have been dusted off and given a technology upgrade..

Endeavour: flying dinosaur

So why bother? Sometimes, middle-aged nostalgia for the space program of my youth gets the best of my pragmatism. But E. looked at that moonrock in Kansas the same way I did 35 years ago, pondering what it was and how it ended up in front of him. And he went bonkers that same afternoon I drove to Austin, hunkered down in front of the television at home with his brother I. and a school friend, loudly counting down the final seconds and cheering wildly as Endeavour flawlessly lifted into the Florida sky.

Spaceflight still stirs the imagination--even in a new generation of six year olds. That in itself may well be reason enough to continue our presence in space.

E. photographs a moonrock